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David Fricke’s Year in Rock 2017

Tom Petty’s final tour, Phish’s Bakers Dozen, the rebirth of the Dream Syndicate and other musical highlights from the year that was

David Fricke's Year in Rock 2017

David Fricke looks back on his most memorable shows, albums and music books of 2017.

Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic; Al Pereira/Getty Images; Scott Barbour/Getty Images

I always wait to crack open a new calendar, to another January, before I review my year in music – in records, concerts and pivotal events – because the best of it can still happen in the December innings: Steve Miller playing the blues with fire and ardor; the blistering return, after a 30-year sabbatical, of the Dream Syndicate; and Warren Haynes’ moving epitaph, via Pink Floyd, to a rock & roll year laden with loss. This set of reflections is not everything that mattered to me in 2017. But it will give you a good idea of how my year in rock got me through the year in darkness. 

Gotta Get Up! The Songs of Harry Nilsson 1965-1972

Ace Records’ Songwriter Series

In the age of streaming, you don’t get the fine print – the labor and legacy behind the stars, summed up in the credits for producers, engineers, songwriters and session musicians that often made for the most interesting reading on album covers and labels. For the last few years, Ace, the British reissue specialists, have been issuing dynamite, thematic various-artist compilations tied to a particular name or team just beyond the limelight. Earlier collections, some in multiple volumes, have been devoted to songwriters (Goffin-King, Laura Nyro, the pre-solo-album Randy Newman), producer-arrangers (Bert Berns, Ragavoy), and classic-soul treatments of the Bob Dylan and Beatles songbooks. Three of the best in 2017 – packed with hits, classics and obscurities; sequenced like knock-out mixtapes – covered an even longer waterfront of great voices and cross-licensing nirvana: Gotta Get Up! The Songs of Harry Nilsson 1965–1972 (the Monkees, the Shangri-Las, the Yardbirds); To Love Somebody, The Songs of the Bee Gees 1966–1970 (heavy on the R&B twist with Al Green, Nina Simone and the Staple Singers); and Making Time: A Shel Talmy Production, highlighting that American producer’s killer Sixties streak in British studios with the Who, the Kinks, the folk group Pentangle and a young Davy Jones, soon to change his surname to Bowie. 

Steve Miller: The Blues Triangle – Jazz at Lincoln Center, New York City, December 1st

Stephen J. Cohen/Getty Images

Steve Miller: The Blues Triangle

Jazz at Lincoln Center, New York City, December 1st

The Space Cowboy turned the focus in this show – the guitarist’s third in an annual series of blues concerts for JALC – on the social and musical forces running between Memphis, Chicago and Texas. Miller was joined by his sparring partner from last year’s presentation, Texas guitarist Jimmie Vaughan, and the Mississippi-born singer and harp player Charlie Musselwhite, who saw a lot of the miles in that triangle in his emigration to Memphis, then Chicago. The three veterans, fronting a sharp, tight crew of JALC regulars, rolled through the blues’ mid–20th-century library – stopping at Lightnin’ Hopkins, Willie Dixon, John Lee Hooker and Little Walter, among others – with refined chops and near-boyish joy, with Miller adding narrative context and personal reminiscences. My highlight: Miller’s crackling-treble blast of K.C. Douglas’ “Mercury Blues,” a song I first heard when the original Steve Miller Band covered it on a 1968 hippie-flick-soundtrack LP, Revolution.

The Dream Syndicate – Bowery Ballroom, New York City, December 2nd; How Did I Find Myself Here? (Anti)

Timothy Hiatt/Getty Images

The Dream Syndicate

Bowery Ballroom, New York City, December 2nd; How Did I Find Myself Here? (Anti)

Reunions, 30 years on, are rarely as good as this: a founding unit of the early Eighties’ so-called Paisley Underground in both vintage and evolving form on its best album since the first two (1982’s The Days of Wine and Roses; 1984’s Medicine Show) and in a live incarnation that does incandescent justice to the length of the canon. At the Bowery Ballroom, singer-guitarist-songwriter Steve Wynn fired his passions for Bob Dylan and Lou Reed through a psychedelic-California whirlwind; the veteran rhythm section of drummer Dennis Duck and bassist Mark Walton kept firm, brawling time; and guitarist Jason Victor, from Wynn’s solo band the Miracle 3, evoked the feedback storms and tremolo-bar spasms of original guitarist Karl Precoda while leaving his own violent radiance on the extended-improv passages and twin-guitar dogfights in the new album’s title track. Actually, “reunion” is the wrong word here. The Dream Syndicate are a great band reborn – and still headed out.

Gov't Mule – "Wish You Were Here," Beacon Theater, New York City, December 30th

Frank Hoensch/Redferns

Gov’t Mule, “Wish You Were Here”

Beacon Theater, New York City, December 30th

This was a hard year in rock & roll passings, and Warren Haynes – the Mule’s singer-guitarist-leader – was painfully close to two of them: the suicide of Allman Brothers drummer Butch Trucks last January and the passing of the Allmans’ founding singer-organist Gregg Allman in May. In a room where he spent so many nights onstage with the Allmans, Haynes acknowledged the missing by coming out of the drum-solo sequence in the second set with a full-blown cover of the Allmans’ instrumental “In Memory of Elizabeth Reed,” with guitarist Jimmy Vivino. Then, in the encore, Haynes played a brief flourish of Duane Allman’s “Little Martha” before leading the Mule and their audience into a majestic reading of Pink Floyd’s ballad of memorial, “Wish You Were Here.” Near the end, Haynes stepped around his mike to the front of the stage and let everyone else take the final verse, a gesture of sharing with the crowd and a lesson in singing through profound loss. This year will be a hard one too. But we have the songs to move through it.

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